Excavation of the Oldest Christian Church in the Tropics Reveals a Fallen City's Dark History

By Esther Inglis-Arkell on at

Archaeologists digging in the ruins of Cidade Velha, the once-thriving city on the Cabo Verde islands off the west coast of Africa have found the oldest Christian church in the tropics, and the horrible reason why the city was once so rich.

Cidade Velha was at one point the second richest city in the Portuguese Empire. This was no mean feat in the mid-1500s, when Portugal ruled a good piece of the Western world. At first it seems odd that a city on an archipelago three hundred miles off the coast of Africa would be so wealthy and powerful. A recently uncovered church reminds us as to how it got that way.

Excavation of the Oldest Christian Church in the Tropics Reveals a Fallen City's Dark History

Nossa Senhora da Conceição was built around 1470, when Cidade Velha was just a small trading outpost for the Portuguese in the Cabo Verde islands. University researchers from Cambridge teamed up with the Cabo Verde government and Cabo Verde archaeologists to uncover the physical remains and virtually reconstruct as much of the church’s history as they could.

What they found was a huge extension to the modest church. The extension was built in 1500, an ever-growing monuments to the population of the island. One of the largest grave stones in the church belonged to Fernão Fiel de Lugo, the town treasurer and a famous slaver. Slavery was what built up Cabo Verde’s wealth, and its population. Thousands of slaves were brought to the island before being loaded onto different ships and sent off to be sold.

But that’s not all of the islands’ heritage. The city was also a melting pot, where people from Africa and Europe lived together and, inevitably, mixed their genes. The bodies in the churchyard can give archaeologists an idea about what that society was like. This is especially important to the people of Cabo Verde. The Republic of Cabo Verde is only forty years old, and its people would like to know the details of their history.

With luck, the church and its occupants can tell them about what went on half a millennium ago.

[Source: Earliest Church in the Tropics Unearthed in Heart of the Atlantic Slave Trade]

Images: Cambridge Archaeological Unit